Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why do I use my paper, ink, and pen?

The viol is an instrument that was displaced in time with the violin family. It uses six lamb gut strings tuned more closely in range to each other, and reaches a full three octaves. The sound is warm and voice like, intimate in a way that the modern instruments are not intended to be. They come in all sizes and the names are the same as the human voice: soprano or treble, alto, tenor, bass.

It wasn’t until today that I understood part of a reason why they have six strings. A major factor is that the design of the instrument cannot withstand the tension required to make each string cover a wider range. So they are tuned in 4ths, not 5ths like modern instruments. Hence, there is a technological consideration here, but whatever the case, the results is distinctive.

Does it still have a role? Today’s concert at the Byrd Festival made a very compelling case that it does. The group is Max Fuller on treble, Tim Scott on tenor, Annie Harkey-Power on bass, and Michael Wilhite on bass. This group was put together only this year, and yet they sounded like a real ensemble, all breathing together and producing a sound that is incomparably textured and rich in a small setting such as the church they played in today as part of the Byrd Festival.

The music they covered were art songs of William Byrd, charming music written for aristocrats but achieving popular acclaim. It is interesting from the standpoint of liturgy since Byrd was also England’s foremost composer of liturgical music during the same period. But in this music, he showed that he would write extremely persuasive religious and secular music for non-liturgical settings as well.

The group opened with “Content is rich,” a song that made me laugh for its funny longing for riches from proximity to power, ending in a nice lesson for us all to find contentment from within. It was sung by Ann Wetherell, who has a voice of uncommon purity that compares with Emma Kirkby in earlier years.

Then came the really stunning religious work that tells of the life of Christ: “Lullaby.” The alto here was Tuesday Rubb, who low register was mellifluous to the point of matching the sound of even the bass viol. This was an extremely touching song.

David Trendell sang the next piece, which was about the martyrdom of Edward Campion: “why do I use my paper, ink and pen?” Of course the text was couched in riddles, as was much of this music. You almost need to be there – as in 16th century England – to get it. Still, the music alone sustains it.

The concert ended with the lovely tribute by Byrd to his mentor Tallis: "To earth, where sorrow dwelleth; In mourning weeds with tears in eyes; Tallis is dead, and music dies."

The irony is that this piece is so masterfully crafted, so stunning in its emotional power, that the listener immediately realizes that it is not true that music is dead; it lives from generation to generation, so long as we are willing to learn from those who came before.

The performances: let me just say that there is nothing to compare to hearing and feeling this music live. They all did a beautiful job, so much so that it was impossible to remember that the group hasn't played together for years. Clearly they share the love of what they are doing, which is the most important element. Also the concert was very well attended, which speaks well of Portland, Oregon.

This group of viol players with singers is certainly something to watch for in the years ahead.

You can buy the conference volume here.

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